NYPD Inaction Over a Missing Black Woman Found Dead Sparks a Historic Racial-Bias Lawsuit

Police blew off the story of a young black woman who vanished. She was tortured and murdered. Now, a court ruling has reopened the case on bias grounds.

Shortly before 7 p.m. on a spring evening in 2003, 21-year-old Romona Moore told her mother that she was going to the Burger King down the street in their Canarsie neighborhood and would be right back.

After a few hours passed and Romona still hadn't returned home, her mother, Elle Carmichael, was worried.

Romona, you see, was a nerd. Despite her age, this child of a Guyanese immigrant was still living a sheltered life. A Hunter College student, she worked part-time as a receptionist and otherwise hung out in the local library, dreaming of a career in research. Shy and introverted away from her family, she never partied and, as far as her mother knew, had never had a real boyfriend. She didn't have a cell phone, but she always called her mother to tell her where she was and what she was doing.

Elle Carmichael: She searched hard for her daughter. Police didn't.
Tina Zimmer
Elle Carmichael: She searched hard for her daughter. Police didn't.
The family’s homemade posters after Romona’s disappearance
Courtesy Elle Carmichael
The family’s homemade posters after Romona’s disappearance

Romona's mother spent a sleepless night waiting for her to return: "A girl at 21, you never know when she's going to do her first time of sleeping out," Carmichael recalls. "But even if she did—and it would have been the first time in her life—I figured she would have been home by six or seven in the morning."

By 9 a.m. that morning, April 25, it was too much worry for the mother to stand. She called 911, and 30 minutes later, two officers from the 67th Precinct arrived at her Remsen Avenue home. As she remembers it, they told her: "She's 21. We're not supposed to take the report." She begged them, and (out of pity, she believes) the officers took complaint No. 2003-067-65609.

They told Carmichael that if Romona still hadn't returned by seven that night, marking her gone for 24 hours, she should call the precinct. At seven on the dot, Carmichael called the precinct. A detective told her: "Lady, why are you calling here? Your daughter is 21. These officers should not have taken the report in the first place." The next day, April 26, the complaint was marked "closed."

Instead, it was Romona Moore's life that was closed. While detectives were offering reasons why they couldn't start an investigation, she spent nearly four days chained up in a basement only a few blocks from her home. She was repeatedly raped and tortured by two young psychopaths who eventually beat her to death on the day that the police grudgingly started searching for her. Her family's amateur investigation found her before the police did.

Besides her grief, Elle Carmichael was disgusted. The story of Svetlana Aronov was fresh in her mind. Less than two months before Romona Moore vanished in Canarsie, Svetlana Aronov, the white wife of a doctor, went missing on the Upper East Side.

The day after Aronov vanished, police launched a massive search for her and the cocker spaniel, Bim, she had taken for a walk. The NYPD called a press conference, assigned two dozen detectives to the case full-time, and went door to door, passing out flyers with pictures of Aronov and Bim on them. The cops traced the Aronovs' phone and bank records and analyzed surveillance tape gathered from stores and apartment buildings near her home. A police van emblazoned with the department's 800 tip-line number drove around her neighborhood, blaring details of her disappearance over a loudspeaker. A letter was sent to rare-books dealers, a business the Aronovs dabbled in. Detectives reportedly even consulted a psychic.

A bloodhound was assigned to track Bim's scent.

Eventually, Aronov's body surfaced in the East River. It was never determined whether she fell, jumped, or was pushed into the water.

"I don't see any other reason but race and class," Carmichael says of the lack of initial response by the NYPD to the case of her missing daughter. "If this was a white kid, they would never had done this. I had to say to the detectives one day: 'You know, I feel the same emotions and pain as a white person.' "

That's a common complaint in the city, and a futile one—until now. The story of Romona Moore ended tragically, but almost exactly five years later, a Brooklyn federal judge has, in effect, reopened the case in a historic ruling about racial bias in the search for missing New Yorkers.

Elle Carmichael has received the go-ahead to proceed to trial with a civil-rights lawsuit claiming that the NYPD has a "practice of not making a prompt investigation of missing-persons claims of African-Americans, while making a prompt investigation for white individuals." Judge Nina Gershon's ruling is believed to be the first of its kind in the city.

When Romona Moore disappeared, her family had prayed. But having gotten nowhere relying on God or the police, the family mobilized, carrying the emotionally spent Carmichael along like a twig on a river. If the police weren't going to investigate, then they themselves would become bloodhounds—and they tried to pressure the police to join in the hunt.

They called Romona's friends, and made up flyers with her picture and their contact information and then plastered them all over the neighborhood. They discovered that Romona had first gone to a friend's home, where she exchanged CDs, before leaving there around 7:30 p.m., saying she was going to Burger King. They also found out that she never made it to the fast-food joint.

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